Who Are Your Giants?

Several years ago, Arnie Miller, my second boss, asked me to escort him to the cemetery to visit the grave of Eli Segal, my first boss, on what would have been Eli’s 73rd birthday. Arnie has Parkinson’s Disease and was told by his doctor that he shouldn’t drive anymore; he is not a man who readily asks for help. And, so, this has become our sad and lovely annual tradition. Eli has been gone — prematurely and staggeringly quickly — for a mind-boggling twelve years now. These men could not be more special to me. Each, in his own way, a pivotal piece of my formation as a person and a professional. There is not a week that goes by where I don’t think about Eli and something he taught me, and rarely a week that goes by where I don’t email or talk to Arnie to get his take on something.

 

A few years ago, I was talking to Arnie about the searches he fucked up. His words, of course. He was in a bit of a melancholic mood and was going on and on about this search that failed, and that placement that was a disaster, conveniently forgetting about the decades of work he did bring on the first openly gay man or the first African American woman, or insert-groundbreaking-hire-here for a great many organizations so important to our civic fabric. It was heartbreaking to see the pain these failures still caused him so many years later, and yet it is precisely because he took every search so personally and so seriously that he was able to do so much groundbreaking work.

 

Eli, on the other hand, was a dreamer. He had a vision of the way the world should be and spent his life dedicated to making it happen. He had a strong ego that allowed him at an early age to determine the level at which he wanted to work and to confidently go out there and tell the world he was worthy of that level. And the world listened. He failed over and over. He used to say, “Remember President McCarthy? Remember President McGovern? Remember President Hart?” But he kept trying. Remember President Clinton? Eli never settled, he never stopped trying, and he never stopped dreaming. In the end, he made his mark and more.

 

I am indeed lucky to have these relationships in my life. Each year, we go to visit Eli, and each year I step back and look at Arnie. There, watching him stooped over in front of the grave, often in the snow, always with the barren winter trees all around and the gray sky above, and the tears in his eyes as he stands there convulsing in grief, I am struck that we all stand on the shoulders of giants. 

 

Eli and Arnie are my giants. And even they got it wrong sometimes. But, when they got it right, the world changed. This is what they did. This is what we do.

 

In the Jewish tradition, you leave a stone on the grave marker of the deceased. (Stones are permanent, like our memories of the dead; flowers, on the other hand, are fleeting.) As I stand there each year, watching Arnie place the stone on the bench that marks Eli’s grave, I think that it was, in fact, fitting that Eli was so fond of quoting Robert F. Kennedy’s South African speech where he said that “Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends for a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest of oppression and resistance.” And, he’d end all of his speeches by saying to the young men and women of AmeriCorps, “Go forth and make waves.”

 

We are all tiny pebbles creating ever larger ripples in the forever unfinished tidal wave that will be our legacy. We, together, have a collective vision of the way the world should be, and we are breathing the rarified air of the people who dedicate their lives to make that happen. It is only our own perception that we are unworthy of this awesome burden of responsibility that consigns our dreams to limbo.  We will be their giants, and they will be ours. But, it is only through finding and mastering our unique voice that we can achieve greatness together.